The government will begin selling masks at gas stations nationwide today in a bid to ensure fair prices and availability of the scarce items.
Starting this afternoon, the public will be able to buy blue surgical masks for NT$10 each at some 1,600 Chinese Petroleum Corp stations and over 60 Formosa Petrochemical Corp stations nationwide.
Purchases are limited to two masks per day per customer.
"The move aims to solve the mask shortage problem and ensure the public can buy masks at reasonable prices," Minister of Economic Affairs Lin Yi-fu (林義夫) said yesterday.
With a shortage of quality masks on the market, authorities on Wednesday warned private importers -- who are sitting on some 10 million masks in customs warehouses -- to start selling them or risk confiscation.
Officials backed up the threat by informing mask sellers the government would be in direct competition with them as of today.
A total of 110,000 masks will be distributed to gas stations, with more to follow.
Authorities are also planning to import 320,000 masks from overseas suppliers and dispatch them to the nation's six major convenience-store chains next week. In addition, the export of locally produced masks has been banned.
Mask prices have soared since the first SARS death was reported late last month.
According to the Fair Trade Commission, prices of surgical masks have jumped to NT$120 each, six times the government established fair price.
In some areas, N95 healthcare masks are being sold for NT$700, seven times what the government set as a fair price.
Any N95 mask costing more than NT$100 or surgical masks priced higher than NT$18 are over-priced, the commission said.
"Consumers should keep the established prices in mind and question anything priced beyond that," said commission Vice Chairman Chen Chi-yuan (
Over the last seven days the commission busted 23 retailers for hoarding masks and penalized each of them with fines ranging from NT$50,000 to NT$150,000.
Meanwhile, news that the government was intervening in the market sent mask vendors into a selling frenzy yesterday.
"My boss urged me to sell the inventory off as quickly as possible, saying once the 10 million masks at customs are released onto the market, prices will drop significantly," said Liao hsing-ju (廖幸珠), who was selling masks in front of the MRT Chungshan station.
Liao, a restaurant employee, said her boss had her start selling masks on the street when the restaurant's sales sagged 50 percent last week.
"Yesterday we sold five surgical masks for NT$100, but today we cut the price to five for NT$90," she said.